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11:38 pm: Rant on non-protagonist children
The title of this rant could be a little confusing, so I’ll just clarify: I meant children who were not the protagonist, as opposed to books about a child or teenager who tries to win back the throne/save the world/destroy the One Ring Golden Treasure of Hwortnoth. They might be children along for the quest, encountered in the villages on the way, or kidnapped by the villains.

1) No Cute Monsters. This is so obvious it shouldn’t need a warning, really. Yet whenever I open a fantasy novel and see a major child character, I wince and hover. About half the time I wind up fleeing to the rafters and peering down while I wonder if it’s safe to come out yet.

Yes, children can be cute. However. Not all people will find them cute in the same way. An adorable phrasing can be just as adorable to the child’s mother the two hundredth time around, but the tense soldier in the front may well be dreaming of a law that would prevent anyone from saying that phrase ever again. Likewise, some people think it’s cute when a child of eleven or twelve gets a very simple fact wrong. A teacher may think this is pathetic, and set out to correct the ignorance at once.

DO NOT insist that every character in the book, regardless of background or anxiety level or current concern, take time out to appreciate the Cyoot. Children have excuses for, say, revealing a hiding party’s location through a loud cry, because they don’t know any better. Adults who realize that they could be killed, and who smile and coo over that behavior anyway before turning to fight, are asking to die of trauma to the head with a blunt object.

2) No Mini-Grad Students. I’m a grad student. Specifically, an English major. Day in and day out I’m around other English grad students. And while our obsessions and the level of professional jealousy are profoundly childish on occasion, I assure you that none of the more specialized words we use are ones that would be coming out of five-year-old mouths, while the five-year-old brains behind those mouths understood completely and fully what they were talking about.

I’m sorry, in a way, because I know the genius child is a long-running conceit of speculative fiction. But when an author makes her child character sound like a grad student, there’s one important thing she’s missing: this kind of knowledge is not instinctive, the way that, say, the urge to learn language in the first place is. It has to be actually acquired. Books have to be read and synthesized, and discussion with other people has to take place, to fully appreciate what’s going on under all the theory. And, of course, every discipline on the planet has its own specialized set of references to those theorists who’ve gone before, considered the “greats,” whom people inside the discipline will know and anyone outside it is extremely unlikely to. Complete knowledge can’t be attained by reading three books, or a hundred, or two hundred.

And, genius-child-writing authors? That’s in science fiction, which has more reason in the first place to pull genius children out of its bum. Put a genius child in a normal fantasy world, and I would like to know just where the hell she found all these books and all the time to read them.

Lack or presence of a printing press. I swear, it’s the hidden god of fantasy. It determines how much knowledge is available more than most people realize.

So, no. I’m sorry. You might have a child smarter than the average, but there’s simply no way that she’ll know as much as a mage who’s studied this subject for fifty years.

3) Children aren’t good travelers. So your fantasy party is walking and walking and walking, or riding and riding and riding, and by the end of the day they’ve covered twenty miles. And somehow, the four-year-old has kept up with them all that way, uncomplaining and with no one really noticing whether she’s with them all the time. She just plumps down by the fire, eats some food, and goes to sleep.

Know the address of the guy who fed you the pretty mushrooms? I know some other people who might be interested.

The reason that you should not eat the pretty mushrooms is that this makes no sense. Children have shorter legs than adults, they tire far more easily, and most of the time they aren’t used to walking or riding that long. (Exceptions can be made for gypsy children, but many of the children in fantasy parties have come from villages or cities, and aren’t used to the pace). They get hungry and don’t want to wait for settled meals; if they do manage to wait, they’ll take more than a few tiny bites of whatever food is available. Is a child going to understand a food or water ration?

Children also get distracted. If this is a four-year-old in relatively good health, and passing through landscape she’s never seen before, she’ll probably want to stop and play with interesting stones, or follow animals, or hear a story from an adult. She can be found and brought back to the journey, of course, but that takes a) time away from progress forward and b) attention from the adults that fantasy authors seldom bother to write.

Finally, children may or may not be sound sleepers. Babies in certain stages of their life are certainly not going to be. Older children may wake up when sentries change shifts, or go to sleep before other characters and wake up earlier, or have nightmares and need to be comforted. Adults acting as traveling or temporary parents are definitely going to be in for some sleep deprivation.

If children are compelled to come along on a fantasy journey, pay attention to them. Arrange a cart or some other convenient way to travel. Make it clear that the child may not understand adult priorities, or may, if old enough, understand them but not like them, and have no inhibition against making her dislike loud and clear. Have adults actually parent, rather than toss off a few sitcom-worthy comments and otherwise forget about the children who are supposedly “their most precious burden.”

4) Gratuitous violence to children just makes your readers want to kill things. Maybe you. Someday I would almost like to sit a selection of fantasy authors down in a room and ask them why they write in children being gored, raped, disemboweled, turned into demonic creatures, skinned alive, and mutilated.

“Almost” like it being the key word, because I suspect all the answers would be variations on “Because it gets the reader’s emotional goat.” Some of them might be interesting variations, sure, but I already know the gist.

And this would be fine, if writing in scenes where the army sacks a town and kills all the children, or where the first time we meet the villain he’s raping a little boy, was ordinary getting of the emotional goat, on a par with making the protagonist confront an old lover or seeing an adult warrior fall in battle. But it’s not. These scenes tend to come across as openly emotionally manipulative, rather than playing the game behind the scenes.

I’ve complained about child abuse scenes before. Many of them are boring to read. Others seem tossed in because the author knows no other way to make the reader dislike a character than to go for the most obvious form of villainy imaginable. But even the well-written, multiple-note scenes are usually manipulative. They want the reader to steam with anger and passion and pity.

So you call up these dramatic emotions, and the reader usually realizes you’re calling them up. You’ve just kicked her out of the story, enough for her to recognize it as a story technique.

I don’t like being told how to react, thank you.

Whenever you plan to include a scene of violence against children, think twice. Think one more time for any of the following that applies:

-The person hurting the children is the main bad guy.
-The scene has no other purpose but to get the reader’s emotional goat.
-The gore is heavier, and the description more detailed, than you use in scenes of violence against adults.
-The reader has never met the character inflicting the violence before the page where it happens.

Think about it. At least that way, you’re likely to lead your readers instead of dragging them kicking and screaming along behind you. Remember: The best puppetmasters don’t show the strings.

5) Not everyone “wrong” can be “redeemed” by the love of a child. I’m so sick of this plotline that it gets a point all to itself. If you want to do a strong villain character turning back to the “light” or “goodness” or whatever the Fantasyland maniacs are calling it these days, please try something other than pairing him with a baby or young child and expecting that to change his mind.

Why is this stupid? First and foremost because it’s overworked, just like the genius-child idea. A lot of authors have done a lot with it. When writing it, an author’s mind tends to overflow with what she’s read before this, rather than concentrating on her character and the way that he might believably respond to this situation.

Second and foremore, some people just don’t enjoy the company of children. This isn’t a sign of villainy. It doesn’t have to be the reason that the “bad” character went “bad” in the first place. They can be bored by them, nervous around them, not interested in them. These people do exist (hi), and so it’s highly unlikely that everyone in existence would change the basis of their personal philosophy after being around a baby.

Third and fore, it could be dangerous to the child. So Gruffy McWarriorKnight has never held a baby, bathed a baby, fed a baby, burped a baby, changed a baby, soothed a baby to sleep, or learned how to care for a sick baby. And you’re giving him a baby. Go you, genius author. I would expect one very hurt baby in a few days. Such characters usually learn the knowledge by miraculous osmosis, which is Stupid. Hiring a midwife is a little better, but if Gruffy McWarriorKnight can find a midwife, why the fuck isn’t he dumping the baby there and hightailing it out of town?

No, children aren’t a Love Cure. Please don’t turn them into one.

6) Try using children the protagonist meets only briefly for purposes other than causing the protagonist to reflect on innocence. So Simple Not-Secretly-A-King-Really stops in a town to purchase supplies. He sees two children playing. They carry his mind back to his childhood, when his younger brother, Good Not-A-Stereotype-Really, played with him. He wishes he was still that innocent. Yadda yadda yadda blah blah, cue two paragraphs or more of blathering that makes me think the fantasy novelist is actually a frustrated inspirational fiction writer, and then he moves on and never thinks about the children for the rest of the novel.

Authors? Only put in secondary characters that you fucking need. (There will be a rant on that soon, since so many people crowd their books with characters who never appear again). If the children aren’t important in and of themselves, innocence isn’t an important theme in your book, Simple Not-Secretly-A-King-Really doesn’t need cheering up, and the reference vanishes never to appear again, what is the good of this?

Children can play exciting, important roles in fantasy novels. This one is neither.

7) Turn children the protagonist is trying to rescue into more than ciphers. I hate the rescue-and-revenge plotline for any number of very good reasons (hey, another embryonic rant). The one that applies here is the protagonist getting to the end of his chase, rescuing the child, slaying the kidnappers…and me thinking all the while, “Who is this child? What’s she like? Why does the protagonist love her? Did someone sneakily edit her name from Little Nell to Julia when I wasn’t looking?”

Oh, rescue-and-revenge protagonists often do have scenes with their children before the kidnapping, and they’ll have flashbacks during the chase to moments shared with them, but those scenes and moments are unrelievedly generic too much of the time. The child giggles and runs around, gets her bleeding knee kissed, presents adorable gifts to her parents or friends, says “I love you” in any amount of sappy ways, and, an obnoxious portion of the time, has curly blonde hair and blue eyes. She doesn’t do anything that makes her her, rather than a cipher for the protagonist to chase and rescue and talk about how much he loves at every opportunity.

There’s a saying that children, while obviously superior to all other children in the eyes of their parents, aren’t nearly as interesting to people outside the family (who probably have their own children to brag about). You can’t fall back on that excuse when writing the rescue-and-revenge plot, or, really, any plot in a fantasy novel that involves a child. You have to make that child interesting to people other than her parents, because your readers aren’t bored guests at a dinner party who smile and smile until their faces crack. They have the choice to shut the book and go away.

Rant on greed is next.

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Date:March 10th, 2011 03:57 am (UTC)

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